FACING UP TO THE FACTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
It’s hard to enjoy the unseasonably warm, spring temperatures without at least contemplating that maybe it’s not such a good thing that my geraniums bloomed all winter (as if Vancouver were some Californian outpost) and that local raspberries and blueberries are already in the markets, nearly a month ahead of schedule.
More troubling to contemplate is a Cambridge University professor’s prediction that this summer — for the first time in 100,000 years — the Arctic Ocean might be ice free.
Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group, recently told the Independent that if it doesn’t happen this summer, then it will next summer. It’s something even Wadhams finds “frightening.”
Wadhams’ is definitely an outlier’s view. But there’s little comfort in the scientific consensus that the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in summer within the next 15 to 30 years. Is it apocalyptic? Well, maybe. “The Arctic is like the canary in the coal mine,” Jason Ross, the Canada Ice Services senior ice forecaster, told me this week. “It’s a precursor of what might happen in the rest of the world.”
The Beaufort Sea is where Ross pointed out the most dramatic change. At the end of May, it is normally 92 per cent frozen. This year, little more than half of it remains covered with ice.
The melting began in May, a full month ahead of normal. The amount of ice this week is what was once normal for July. The ice service has an animated map that shows it shrinking.
Northern Baffin Bay between Baffin Island and Greenland is usually 85 per cent frozen in early June. This year, ice covers only 55 per cent.
Further south, Hudson Bay began melting two weeks earlier than usual. Ice now covers 78 per cent of it, not the usual 85 per cent. On Tuesday, the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center reported that preliminary satellite data for May indicates sea ice was at lower levels than in 2012, after melting started anywhere from two to four weeks ahead of normal.
How bad can that be? Well, 2012 had the least sea ice of any year for which data exists.
“The Arctic is in crisis,” Ted Scambos, lead scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, recently wrote. “Year by year, it’s slipping into a new state and it’s hard to see how that won’t have an effect on weather throughout the Northern Hemisphere.”
In May, ice covered 12 million square kilometres. That’s 580,000 square kilometres less than 2012’s record low and 1.39 million square kilometres below the 30-year average from 1981 to 2010. To get some perspective on how much ice that is, keep in mind that British Columbia’s total area is roughly one million square kilometres.
Without sea ice, the water absorbs more sunlight, warms up and contributes to climate change. Ross likens sea ice to the lid on a coffee cup. Lift it off and both heat and moisture escape into the air.
So it’s no surprise that the average air temperature over Arctic land was 1.3 C above average for the year ending September 2015. It was the warmest winter since the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration began observations in 1900.
To mark World Ocean’s Day on Wednesday, Shell Oil donated its offshore exploration rights in the Lancaster Sound area north of Baffin Island to the Nature Conservancy.
The decision came only two months after the World Wildlife Federation filed a lawsuit against Canada and Shell arguing that the 35-year-old permits had expired.
Still, it made it possible for the Canadian government to announce the creation of a massive marine conservation area of close to 45,000 square kilometres at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage. That means no resource exploration or development and no shipping in this critical habitat for unique and endangered species such as polar bears, narwhals, walruses and bowhead whales. It’s the culmination of 30 years of lobbying by the Inuit.
The WWF’s interactive map graphically explains why the area is so important.
Wednesday’s announcement also included the federal government’s commitment to establish five more marine conservation areas, including Anguniaqvia Niqiqyuam in the Beaufort Sea, and the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Sponge Glass Reef off the B.C. coast.
But given scientists’ concerns about the imminent prospect of an ice-free Arctic, I can’t help wonder whether Arctic conservation areas are too little, too late for all of the ice dependents — Inuit people as well as the marine mammals, birds and sea creatures.
And, despite relishing the prospect of a long, sunny summer, I can’t help have a twinge of fear that soon it will be too late for any of us to stop what’s happening both there and here.